Early fires herald dangerous Australian summer

By Greg Ansley

Authorities say high temperatures and strong winds mean that the risk of grass fires taking hold is significantly increased. Photo / Courier Mail
Authorities say high temperatures and strong winds mean that the risk of grass fires taking hold is significantly increased. Photo / Courier Mail

Australia has been put on frightening notice as fires ravage large areas of the continent just two weeks into spring, amid warnings of a dangerous summer to come.

Hundreds of bush and grass fires have been burning in every mainland state and across border areas of the Northern Territory in the past few days, pushed by hot, dry winds through country heavy with growth.

Although homes and property have been threatened in Queensland and New South Wales, firefighters have so far kept flames at bay in temperatures soaring above 30C in some areas.

But a number of large fires are burning beyond reach in inaccessible, remote areas, and roads and railways have been closed at times, with travellers in Western Australia told to take care on outback roads and highways darkened by smoke. Authorities have warned that this is the deadly flip side of the end of the nation's crippling decade-long drought.

Warm, wet weather has accelerated growth of grass and bushland, dramatically raising the risk of devastating fires during a long bushfire season.

Already NSW has imposed its first total fire ban of the season, and Queensland has declared a fire danger period through to the new year, banning fires without a permit. Severe fire warnings have this week been issued for areas of Queensland, NSW, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

"There is no doubt that weather conditions of high temperatures, north to northwesterly winds and low humidity, which we are experiencing now, are perfect conditions for fire," Queensland Rural Fire Service acting assistant commissioner Paul Adcock told ABC radio.

In NSW, Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said strong vegetation growth had created fuel loads not seen in the state for 30 to 40 years.

In Victoria, authorities said above-average rain over the past year across many areas of the state had boosted soil moisture, which with warm weather was pushing vigorous growth that had created the highest grassfire risk for many years.

Intensive monitoring of conditions, co-ordinated emergency services planning, hazard reduction burns, firebreak construction and fire education campaigns are under way across the nation.

A key concern is the high risk of grassfires across vast tracts of inland areas. Driven by hot, strong winds, they can race across open country at more than 20km/h, change direction quickly and without warning, and trap entire communities or traffic on roads.

"Forecast high temperatures and strong winds mean that the risk of grass fires starting and taking hold is significantly increased," Fitzsimmons said. "In these types of conditions it is crucial that the community understands the risk, takes the necessary precautions and remains vigilant."

Authorities are warning that only homes that have been properly prepared stand a chance of surviving a wildfire, and that getting out early remains the best option. They say all homes should have a bushfire survival plan.

"Landholders need to start taking action now," Fitzsimmons said. "Everyone should know what they will do and where they will go in the event of a fire. People should avoid leaving important decisions to the last minute."

The past few days have hammered the warning home. Hot weather and winds have fanned about 400 fires in Queensland, with major outbreaks in the southern Glenmorgan, Maranoa and Warrego regions, parts of the Darling Downs and Granite Belt districts, near Mt Morgan in central Queensland, and at Townsville and Charters Towers in the north.

About 4000ha has been burned so far at Mt Morgan. Other fires broke out south of Tully, near Charleville in the southwest, and at Cardwell, south of Cairns in the far north, where a bushfire is also burning out of control in inaccessible country near Innifail.

In NSW firefighters have been battling outbreaks in the Blue Mountains, and near Casino. Fires are also burning in remote areas of WA's Kimberley and Goldfields regions, and in the Northern Territory areas of Hell's Gate, on the northern border with Queensland, and Poeppel's Corner, near the Simpson Desert.

- NZ Herald

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